November 21, 2017

Aspen in Action | Community Engagement

“We needed to change the conversation about libraries,” says Gina Millsap, CEO of Kansas’s Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL), the 2016 Gale/LJ Library of the Year.

Millsap refers to her ongoing work with the Aspen Institute, an international leadership development nonprofit that has turned a lens toward public libraries. In October 2014, Aspen sparked a conversation about the future of libraries with its release of a report titled “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries.” TSCPL served as a case study. “The report gave us a framework and concepts to take out to the community,” Millsap tells LJ. As libraries engaged with the report, it became clear that many wanted more hands-on guidance about how to take recommendations from Rising to the Challenge and turn them into practical, achievable goals. In response, Aspen developed a new toolkit featuring 12 chapters of “ACTivities” covering topics such as “The Library as Civic Resource,” “The Library as Literacy Champion,” and “Jobs and Economic Development” to help libraries dig into the work of transformation, released in January as the “Action Guide for Re-Envisioning Your Public Library.” “We need to move our libraries from reading and conceptualizing to action,” says Millsap, who serves as a Dialogue Expert with the Aspen Institute, offering support to libraries that work with the guide.

Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries director Amy Garmer speaks at the “Rising to the Challenge” panel at the PLA 2016 Conference. (l-r: Dawn LaValle, Director of the CT Division of Library Development; Kendall Wiggin, CT State Librarian and President, Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA); Cindy Fesemyer, Director of the Columbus Public Library, WI; Garmer; Gina Millsap, CEO of the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library, KS; Maria Carpenter, Director of Library Services, Santa Monica, CA.

Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries director Amy Garmer speaks at the “Rising to the Challenge” panel at the PLA 2016 Conference. (l-r: Dawn LaValle, Director of the CT Division of Library Development; Kendall Wiggin, CT State Librarian and President, Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA); Cindy Fesemyer, Director of the Columbus Public Library, WI; Garmer; Gina Millsap, CEO of the Topeka Shawnee County Public Library, KS; Maria Carpenter, Director of Library Services, Santa Monica, CA.

In fall 2015, the institute invited 50 U.S. libraries—identified by an advisory committee as representing a variety of demographics—to participate in a pilot project to test the toolkit. “Every library that said ‘yes!’ was in,” says Amy Garmer, director of Aspen’s Dialogue on Public Libraries, resulting in a 23-library cohort. The pilot was timed to take place ahead of the launch of the Action Guide at the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2016 Midwinter Meeting, so that the institute would have time to gather “some good insights for edits and feedback” before the release. While the guide is now out, the process of inquiry is not over, Garmer tells LJ. She explains, “We’re not trying to come to conclusions and tell people how to do things; we want to open up conversations.” At the Aspen Institute’s LibraryVision.org website, in addition to the report and the guide, libraries also have “access to an online community working together to address the transformation of public libraries in the digital age.”

Confirmation and case-making

For some libraries participating in the pilot project, the Action Guide reinforced the good work already being done. Felton Thomas, director of the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) and a 2002 LJ Mover & Shaker, notes that library leadership had begun working on the development goal of using the tagline “The People’s University” as a new service model prior to joining the pilot. “One of the areas that the report helped us focus our approach on was specifically about defining the People’s University,” Thomas says. “We had a concept of what elevating [CPL] to the People’s University would look like, but the report helped us better design it by looking through the lens of ‘people, places, and platform.’ ”

The main tenets of the Dialogue on Public Libraries are three Ps: people, platform, and place. Thomas says that since he had been familiar with these ideas in advance of the pilot, “we insert aspects of the Aspen Dialogue into meetings that we’re already having with city officials, school districts, cultural institutions, and businesses.”

Alice Knapp, president of the Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT, and a 2003 LJ Mover & Shaker, agrees, saying, “We have a new vocabulary to use for speaking to funders and users; [using the Action Guide] showed us that our priorities align with the city’s.” For example, Knapp says that the library’s work and outreach with the small business community “tied into the city’s priority of a healthy thriving economy of entrepreneurs and small businesses. Doing the work with the guide didn’t initiate these services, but it did give us the ability to discuss why we were doing them in light of the city’s priorities.”

Some libraries in the pilot group found that working through the guide was just what they needed to advance new initiatives. James Ochsner, director of library services for the Sutter County Library (SCL), CA, tells LJ that prior to participating in the pilot, he had begun pitching his plan to create an Innovation Center inside SCL that would attract students, small business owners, literacy agencies, and other community groups.

Feeling empowered by the Dialogue on Public Libraries materials, he shared his ideas with community leaders, who have responded favorably. “I’ve been talking to library staff for several years about a better use of the space we have,” Ochsner relates. “The idea to create the Innovation Center in its current form…coincided with my first reading of Rising to the Challenge. I guess you could say our brains were primed with a desire for better use of space and then Aspen came along.”

He has also been sharing his vision for the future of SCL with library customers, including one who “had some concern about the ‘brave new world’ of libraries.” To help assuage her fear, ­Ochsner sent a handwritten note outlining how libraries are already moving forward in practices such as proactive weeding and hosting library services in virtual spaces. The user was delighted by his analog response and said that she was looking forward to seeing more positive change at her library.

The conversation

Conversations with users, stakeholders, local organizations, and more, called public dialogs in the Action Guide, are an essential exercise to help libraries turn outward and discover what their communities want and need.

Ochsner is currently working with Aspen’s Garmer to plan and carry out the guide’s public dialogs with Sutter County stakeholders in the fall. The Ferguson Library is already in the process of completing a series of public dialogs based on the guide’s recommendations. “Our hope is that this information will help us prepare for strategic long-range planning in the fall,” says Knapp.

Cindy Fesemyer, library director of the Columbus Public Library (CPL), WI, is also a believer in the community conversation advocated by the Action Guide—so much so that she didn’t wait for its recommendations. CPL began community conversations as the staff worked through the Libraries Transforming Communities program offered by ALA in conjunction with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation. What Fesemyer learned from those dialogs completely changed the approach the library was taking as its leadership planned for the future. “Without our many community conversations, we would simply have expanded the library, not realizing that the community was clamoring for so much more,” she notes. “They wanted services not currently provided in Columbus, like a Teen Center. They wanted one-stop shopping for their quality-of-life needs, which meant programs, activities, and materials for all ages, abilities, and interests under one roof.” As a result, Fesemyer has decided to advocate with civic leaders for not just a bigger library but a community center, perhaps as part of a public-private partnership.

Support for staff and strategy

Dara Schmidt, director of the Cedar Rapids Public Library (CRPL), IA, says that her management team met weekly for at least one hour of work. “Some topics needed a different approach or input from other departments,” she says.

Knapp, on the other hand, worked through the Action Guide exercises with the entire staff of the Ferguson Library. The chance to be self-reflective with the Action Guide, coupled with the aspirational tone of the program, made for a positive experience that will help the staff as they plan, she says; reflection helped change the staff’s perspective while working through the chapters. According to Knapp, “In the very first activity, we were asked to identify audiences at your library and discuss the library’s role with that audience and the anticipated outcome. We all intuitively know what to do when we are working with [English Language Learners (ELL)], for example. When you take the time to discuss the outcome, it is not just about leading a person to the material (whether in print or online). The librarian’s role is so much more important as they become the ones to connect [ELLs] to resources, programs, and classes, so that they can speak English. It is the outcome, rather than the method, that becomes important.”

TAKING ACTION TO HEART. Top: Aspen exercise group at Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT. Middle: Ferguson Library president Alice Knapp leads a communications workshop, with a backdrop of the “Team Stand” slide that opens every meeting. Bottom: The Aspen Action Guide challenges libraries to transform and turn around. Photos by Linda Avellar, The Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT

TAKING ACTION TO HEART Top: Aspen exercise group at Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT. Middle: Ferguson Library president Alice Knapp leads a communications workshop, with a backdrop of the “Team Stand” slide that opens every meeting. Bottom: The Aspen Action Guide challenges libraries to transform and turn around. Photos by Linda Avellar, the Ferguson Library, Stamford, CT

“We treated each exercise like a kitchen table conversation; staff were very comfortable with this and it also led to fantastic team-building,” Knapp continues. Finding time to get staff involved was imperative, and Knapp recommends that libraries looking to use the Action Guide make it a priority: “Don’t let day-to-day life get in the way.”

The guide can even help define the staff: CPL is “currently employing the Action Guide as a tool in the formation of a new library program team,” according to LibraryVision.org.

Some changes the guide inspired are concrete: the sixth section walks libraries through a SOAR (strengths, opportunities, aspirations, results) assessment. As a new approach to the traditional SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, Knapp found her staff responding in a very favorable way. “I will never use SWOT again; SOAR is so much better,” she says. CRPL’s Schmidt concurs, saying, “This kept the conversation positive, when you don’t use ‘weakness.’ ”

An adaptable approach

Garmer sees the Action Guide as a flexible tool that can be implemented by public libraries regardless of where the organization is in the process of transformation, explaining that “libraries that were at an earlier place in the transformation process tended to take the guide and use it as an internal document to either prepare for or begin strategic planning.” The first six chapters are “great for strategic planning,” says ­Fesemyer. “You are analyzing internally what you’re doing and why. Moving into the SOAR analysis [helps you] then turn outward, leading ultimately to the external focus of collecting input from your community.”

However, some libraries have already turned outward. “There are clearly things [in the Action Guide] that are great for basic strategy, and some libraries will be beyond that,” Garmer tells LJ. Referring to the pilot cohort, she notes that “some libraries were already more engaged with community leaders outside the library” and these libraries were able to jump right into the public dialogs outlined in the second half of the Action Guide.

Like TSCPL, CRPL was a case study library in Rising to the Challenge, so it, too, was already several steps along the path outlined by the guide. Nonetheless, Schmidt tells LJ, the actionable advice of the guide proved useful in facing a new challenge: Cedar Rapids embarked on the pilot just as a tax levy for the library system hit local ballots. When it went down to defeat, Schmidt and her team used the input from the Action Guide–led public dialogs to reallocate resources. “We’ll see if we need to try for a re-levy,” she says. “Based on adjustments and responses to community needs, our open conversations led to putting resources to the most impactful projects. The toolkit [provided in the guide] helped us define what is most useful.”

A LESSON IN PLANNING Columbus Public Library, WI, director Cindy ­Fesemyer (l.) incorporates the Action Guide as a text into the class she teaches at the School of Library and Information Studies, University  of Wisconsin-Madison. Photo by Chloe Prosser

A LESSON IN PLANNING Columbus Public Library, WI, director Cindy ­Fesemyer (l.) incorporates the Action Guide as a text into the class she teaches at the School of Library and Information Studies, University
of Wisconsin-Madison. Photo by Chloe Prosser

Garmer noted that size could impact how different libraries can carry out the steps in the guide. The Red Hook Public Library, NY, is using the toolkit to focus on “providing more leadership and volunteer opportunities for teens and twentysomethings, creating a walkable, vibrant village with flourishing businesses and embracing and celebrating diversity,” according to Director Erica Freudenberger (a 2016 LJ Movers & Shaker). A small library with just two full-time staff members, she tells LJ, Red Hook wasn’t able to complete the project within the ten weeks of the pilot program. Nonetheless, the library staff “had a wonderful experience” working with the Aspen materials, and Freudenberger highly recommends that “libraries use this as a springboard for deeper community ­engagement.”

While some smaller libraries may need to make some tweaks to make the guide work for them, others have already implemented many of the steps. Feedback from smaller libraries during the pilot phase had a direct impact on the final release of the Action Guide; Ochsner feels that “the new version better addresses libraries of all sizes.” He continues, “even if you don’t use the Action Guide exactly the way it’s laid out, the ideas are really valuable. This is a great tool to get your thoughts together and focus them.”

Garmer and the Aspen Institute are “focused on developing and nurturing a community of practice around the materials we’ve put together,” she says. The organization plans to keep the current iteration of the guide available to libraries for the next six to nine months and then will consider if “substantial revisions or supplements should be made in order to target specific feedback.”

April Witteveen is a Community Librarian with the Deschutes Public Library system in Central Oregon

This article was published in Library Journal's June 15, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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